By Nils Skudra
As a Civil War historian, I have always been fascinated by the various personalities on both sides that played a pivotal role in shaping the course of the conflict. One of the most enigmatic of these figures is Jefferson Davis, who served as the Confederacy’s president throughout the duration of the war; was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe for two years but ultimately never stood trial for treason; and dedicated the remainder of his life to vindicating the Confederate cause.
One question that has particularly intrigued me is whether Davis had Asperger’s Syndrome due to a variety of personality traits that he brought to his role as the Confederacy’s commander-in-chief. Among these were some positive traits, such as a hyper-intensive work ethic and attention to detail, but also a strong conviction in the validity of his own opinions, a hypersensitivity to criticism, and a refusal to admit to being wrong or in error. While these characteristics illustrated Davis’ fervent devotion to the Confederacy and his task as its commander-in-chief, they proved highly detrimental to Davis’ relationships with subordinates and other leading Confederate politicians, and in the long term these traits ultimately had a negative impact on his wartime leadership.
Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in Fairview, Kentucky, some 100 miles from the birthplace of his future adversary, Abraham Lincoln. The son of an itinerant farmer who had served in the Revolutionary War, Davis moved with his family to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana and then Wilkinson County, Mississippi, where they earned their living growing cotton with the use of slave labor. Davis was thus raised in a slaveholding atmosphere where he was instilled with the ideology of white supremacy and the belief that slavery was the “natural condition” of African Americans, a people that, he would later argue in his political speeches, were unfit for self-government. Nonetheless, in his private life Davis earned a reputation as a humane slaveholder, developing a close bond with his personal slave Jim Pemberton, and he followed his older brother Joseph’s example of giving slaves considerable autonomy in having their own court system and training certain slaves, like Benjamin Montgomery, in specialized skills.
As he reached adulthood, Davis found a surrogate father in his brother Joseph, who arranged his appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1824. During his military studies there, Davis made close friendships with several cadets who would later serve under him as Confederate generals during the Civil War, including Albert Sidney Johnston and Leonidas Polk. Although he earned a series of demerits for insubordination, Davis managed to graduate 23rd in a class of 33, after which he served in the 1st Infantry Regiment in the Michigan Territory under the command of future president Zachary Taylor. He saw service in the Black Hawk War and was responsible for the escort of Chief Black Hawk to prison. While part of a victorious army, Davis showed much consideration and empathy for Black Hawk, shielding him from curiosity seekers, and the chief later recalled that the young officer treated him “with much kindness.”
Davis subsequently fell in love with Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of his commanding officer, and requested Colonel Taylor’s permission to marry her. The colonel initially refused since he was concerned about the difficulties his daughter would face as the wife of an Army officer on the frontier, and Davis therefore resigned his commission after consulting with his brother. He and Sarah married in Louisville, Kentucky on June 17, 1835, but their marriage tragically ended three months later when Sarah died of either malaria or yellow fever.
Deeply consumed with grief, Davis spent the next several years in solitude, developing his plantation at Brierfield, studying government and history, and engaging in political discussions with his brother. In the 1840s, Davis began his political career as a member of Mississippi’s Democratic Party, serving as a presidential elector for the 1844 presidential election and winning a seat in Congress in 1845.
During this period, Davis met his future second wife, Varina Banks Howell, a woman seventeen years his junior and the granddaughter of New Jersey governor Richard Howell. Following their first meeting, Varina left a detailed observation about Davis’ personality traits:
“He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper, and has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion, which offends me; yet he is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner of asserting himself. The fact is, he is the kind of person I should expect to rescue one from a mad dog at any risk, but to insist upon a stoical indifference to the fright afterward.”
Varina’s reflection on Davis’ opinionated nature offers some key insights into his possible Asperger’s characteristics. Since individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome tend to be very self-focused, they often believe firmly in the validity of their own opinions and consequently are not always considerate of other people’s perspectives. This can sometimes have an alienating effect on interpersonal relationships that Asperger’s individuals have with their peers, and in Davis’ case this would be an enduring aspect of his relationships with subordinates during the Civil War. Nonetheless, despite her family’s misgivings about Davis, he and Varina were finally married on February 26, 1845. Over the following years, their marriage would produce six children, only three of whom would live to adulthood.
Following the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, Davis raised the Mississippi Rifles, a volunteer infantry regiment, and served under his former father-in-law, earning distinction in the Battle of Monterey and the Battle of Buena Vista, where he received a serious foot wound that would leave him with a permanent limp. Returning home as a war hero, Davis resumed his political career and was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he became a prominent advocate of slavery’s expansion, an issue that had been reopened by the acquisition of new western territories in the conflict. Davis fervently denounced Northern leaders’ attempts to prohibit slavery’s spread, arguing that because the territories were the “common property” of all U.S. citizens, slaveholders had a right to bring their slaves with them and that the Constitution did not give the federal government the power to curtail this right. Furthermore, while professing his devotion to the Union, Davis promoted John C. Calhoun’s “compact theory,” which maintained that the Union had been formed as a voluntary compact for the purpose of mutual defense and the general welfare of the nation, and that states therefore had a constitutional right to secede when their interests were no longer protected by the federal government.
Davis subsequently served as U.S. Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, earning a reputation for innovation and efficiency in modernizing the U.S. military. However, while Davis maintained a good working relationship with President Pierce, his strongly opinionated personality and aloof demeanor alienated a variety of colleagues, including General Winfield Scott, who referred to Davis as “a cheap Judas” who “would have betrayed Christ and the Apostles and the whole Christian church” for thirty pieces of silver.
In addition, Sam Houston of Texas remarked that Davis was “as cold as a lizard and ambitious as Lucifer.” Davis’ interpersonal difficulties and emotional detachment could be interpreted as signs of Asperger’s Syndrome since Asperger’s individuals often manifest poor social skills in their interactions with other people, and their challenges with showing emotions can sometimes give the wrong impression of aloofness and unfriendliness. However, it should be noted that Davis’ temperament was often affected by his frequent bouts with neuralgia, which left him bedridden for a time and partially blind in one eye, and his correspondence indicates that he was indeed a loving husband and father and had a strong loyalty to his personal friends, but this would later have an adverse influence on his performance as the Confederacy’s commander-in-chief.
Following his service as Secretary of War, Davis resumed his Senate career, which was marked by his active involvement in the debates over slavery’s expansion and the increasing sectional tension between North and South. While steadfastly defending slavery and states’ rights, Davis expressed hope that the Union could be preserved through a compromise that was favorable to Southern interests. But following Mississippi’s secession he resigned his Senate seat and returned to Brierfield in January 1861. When he received word that he had been elected provisional president of the Confederacy, Davis reluctantly accepted the position and traveled to Montgomery, Alabama for his inauguration. Over the next four years, Davis shouldered the task of leading the new Southern nation in wartime while having numerous clashes with colleagues at home, which would bring out some of his most unpleasant characteristics.
As Confederate president, Davis brought an extreme diligence, hyper-intensive work ethic and detail orientation to the functions of commander-in-chief, handling all types of official correspondence and paperwork. These traits are often displayed by Asperger’s individuals since they bring a very singular focus to their job tasks, and for this reason many employers have found them to be highly valuable candidates. However, Davis took a micromanaging approach to these tasks, displaying an inability to delegate them to the staff of the various government departments, and historian William C. Davis has written that this had a detrimental effect on the efficiency of the Confederate bureaucracy.
In addition, due to the demands of the various Southern states for military protection, Davis showed a determination to defend every inch of Confederate territory, with the result that Confederate troops and resources were stretched thin instead of being concentrated in strategically important areas. This could also be interpreted as illustrative of how detail orientation can adversely affect the judgment of Asperger’s individuals since it may inhibit their ability to see the larger picture rather than focus on meeting every detail, although, conversely, it could be considered a result of the pressure that Davis faced from the individual states, despite his commitment to prioritizing the needs of the Confederate nation above of those of the states.
Davis’ interpersonal skills and his opinionated nature also had a detrimental impact on his relationships with colleagues and the public perception of him as commander-in-chief. During social occasions at the Confederate White House, he often appeared aloof and haughty toward politicians who disagreed with him, and he took strong personal offense toward any criticism. While he enjoyed a close working relationship with Robert E. Lee, disagreements over strategy and seniority of rank resulted in a bitter acrimony between Davis and two of his other leading generals – Joseph E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard – which affected their cooperation throughout the war.
In addition, Davis’ conviction in the validity of his views and his loyalty to personal friends led him to make poor strategic decisions, followed by his failure to acknowledge his mistakes. This could be seen as an example of how the self-focused mindset of Asperger’s individuals affects their judgment due to their challenges with recognizing other people’s perspectives, although it can also be interpreted as emblematic of Davis’ strong ego and pride, which certainly played a decisive role in his determination to continue fighting even as the Confederacy crumbled all around him during the war’s final months.
Following the war’s conclusion, Davis was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe, where he awaited trial for treason. Although his wartime leadership had made Davis highly unpopular throughout the South, his incarceration brought an outpouring of public sympathy among white Southerners, who came to see Davis as suffering on their behalf.
Ultimately, Davis was released after two years without standing trial, but he never asked for a pardon since he believed that accepting a pardon would have constituted an admission that the Confederate cause had been wrong. During the subsequent years, Davis authored The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, in which he sought to vindicate the Confederacy and the principles that it stood for, maintaining that states’ rights, rather than slavery, had been the root cause of the war. Although he promoted reconciliation and loyalty to the Union in his final years, Davis would never apologize for the cause that he had defended, and in the aftermath of his death he became a martyr of the Lost Cause movement, which venerated the Confederacy and its leaders through the erection of monuments and memorials across the South and the circulation of history books articulating the Confederate narrative of the war in Southern school curriculums.
In summation, Jefferson Davis was a highly enigmatic and complex historical figure whose wartime leadership has largely been compared unfavorably with that of Abraham Lincoln. Considering whether Davis had Asperger’s Syndrome, I believe that strong arguments can be made both for and against this possibility since he brought a variety of personality traits to his leadership which are often found among Asperger’s individuals, although these traits can also be attributed to Davis’ strong-willed pride and perfectionism. In many ways, these characteristics had a profound impact on Davis’ leadership style, contributing to his self-confidence but also alienating subordinates and adversely affecting the Confederacy’s long-term strategy. In studying Davis’ career, both neurodiverse and neurotypical students of history can hopefully take away the lesson that while particular personality traits can be an asset in certain scenarios, they must be balanced with the necessary qualities of strong leadership in times of war.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.